Does innovation need a soul?


Innovation has been the buzzword of business for some time now, along with disruption or, better yet, disruptive innovation. Uber and AirBnB have been up on their pedestal for a decade, setting the tone for a flood of hopeful tech startups set to transform traditional industries.

In 2015, the Turnbull government was so hyped about innovation being the new frontier of Australian business post the mining boom that it launched the National Innovation & Science Agenda to “drive smart ideas that create business growth, local jobs and global success.” While the ideas boom didn’t resonate the way they may have hoped, innovating businesses have never been more pervasive (and I don’t exclude Redchip from joining the innovation wave).

The problem with trends though, is that the real meaning of words and ideas can be lost. Innovation has always been important, long before the tech-boom. We wouldn’t have many of the foods we eat, comforts we enjoy or health standards we take for granted without centuries of innovation behind us.

So, what does innovation actually mean, is it now tied to technology, and how does it all impact modern Australian SMEs?

What is innovation?

These days innovation is often used synonymously with technology. While I would agree that in today’s world technology touches almost everything and much of innovation crosses over with tech, they are not interchangeable terms.

The etymology of the word tells us that “innovation” dates way back to 1540 and relates to renewal, restoration or the introduction of something as new. I take this definition to mean that innovation is the improvement of something existing, as opposed to a similarly linked term, invention, which is about new discovery and creation. Innovation is about problem solving – finding ways to do things better.

Taking innovation back to business basics

If innovation is about improving ideas, innovating businesses must be focussed on commercialising these changes. Which brings us back to the basics of any business.

You have your business fundamentals including strategy, marketing, finance, technology and operations. But for me, the biggest fundamental of any business is people – the clients, customers, employees, directors, contractors and suppliers. No business can operate without someone purchasing their wares, and whether your business sells directly to consumers or through a B2B channel, there is a human to human experience that is essential to how your business operates. For me, this should be the central pillar of any innovation agenda.

The future of work is human

Aside from the connections made in any workplace, the human element to the way we work, and the way we will work in the future, goes much deeper, to the very jobs we perform and skills we possess.

In its recent report, The path to prosperity: Why the future of work is human, Deloitte explores how the nature of work is changing. Whilst the focus of industry was once on the manual skills you could do with your hands, today our jobs increasingly require the cognitive skills of the head. In the future, another shift is predicted – towards the use of the heart in interpersonal and creative roles that are uniquely human. It is predicted that by 2030, two-thirds of jobs will be soft-skill intensive and a quarter will be professional-based roles.

So, does innovation need a soul?

I think it’s pretty clear that I’m building my argument towards yes, it does. A soul being the element connecting what we do back to the human experience. Whilst it’s smart and important to use technology to create efficiency, this pursuit alone is shallow and short-sighted.

I’m having an increasing number of conversations about experiences in business – user experiences, client experiences and employee experiences. Perhaps these are just more trendy terms, but beyond the buzz I see humans craving to be understood, appreciated and connected. I think this concept, like true innovation, is resilient. As the world becomes more digitised and data gets smarter, the expectations on businesses to deliver these values at every interaction will continue to go up.

Apple is the classic example of putting human experience at the forefront of innovation. Although its product is technology, Apple’s philosophy is to start with the consumer experience in mind and to enhance this with every new product or service. But you get a very different outcome when you start with efficiency and try to work forwards to consumer satisfaction.

What does this mean for businesses like ours?

We’re all talking about innovating, disrupting and the technologies that are transforming our industries. My takeaway is to put that noise to the side for a moment and go back to the fundamentals of our businesses.

Who are the consumers keeping our businesses alive, and what experiences do they expect? What can we do to go above and beyond those expectations? What existing processes and services do we have that can be renewed, reimagined and improved? What skills and strategies will carry our businesses into the future?

Innovating through a human experience lens goes beyond introducing tech efficiencies to business, and will outlast any latest trends.

Do you agree with my musings, or do you think innovation and technology in 2019 are one and the same? I’m interested to hear about the innovation you’re seeing around you – you’re welcome to email me at PeterM@redchip.com.au

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